So you want to be a successful startup CEO? Is being a startup CEO a glamorous job or one that is only for masochists? It depends! Every day on social media and in the press there are an endless number of “experts” prepared to give you the benefit of their wisdom usually for a fee. They will talk to you about the startup life as something glamorous with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you know the ones that talk about how to raise money, how to attract many customers to the company, and what it takes to be a great CEO.
Very rarely do you hear about what a challenge it is to be a startup CEO and how it’s not for every founder that wants to be an entrepreneur. I’ve spent a lot of time working with many startup CEOs and have in fact been one myself. From my personal experience here are some of the traits I’ve found are useful to become a successful startup CEO.
8 Common Traits of Successful Startup CEOs
1. Be Totally Focussed on the Company Vision
The CEO is the owner of the company’s overall vision. I’m not talking about the vision for the next few months. The CEO needs to be able to keep things on course for the long haul and to make sure that the “big picture” vision of the company can be achieved. The vision for a startup usually can’t be achieved in one year or even in many cases, it will take a decade or more. It takes a great startup CEO to keep the company on track to achieve that long term vision.
2. Be a Great Communicator
You need to be able to portray the energy and passion that you feel into others…over and over again on a daily basis. As a startup CEO you need to communicate the vision and hope for the future of your startup to the rest of the world. You need to be able to break down the overall vision of the company into something that mere mortals can understand. You can’t speak in crazy technical jargon or industry terms. It needs to be simple, clear, and compelling. You also need to be able to argue your point. Many will pick “arguments” with you just to see how strong willed you are. Be respectful, but be very confident in your answer.
3. Find the Smartest People and Defer on Domain Expertise
A startup CEO has to be able to find the best talent. The key is finding people that are smarter than you on specific topics. It might be technical team members/leaders or it might be a new business champion. A startup CEO has to have the ability to find these people and make relatively fast decisions to hire them. They also have to be able to show the fire and passion to convince them to leave what is most likely a better paying and more secure job to join the company. The real key to hiring as a startup CEO comes after the hire. A great startup CEO will be able to trust the hires that they make and defer to them on areas of domain expertise. It’s hard to let go, but you have to learn to, especially as the company grows.
4. Be a good Link between the Company and Investors
Whether you want to believe it or not, you are not an investor’s only consideration. Even if you are a superstar, investors have other companies to help and many with good income potential. A good investor will pick 2-3 new companies per year to work with. A good startup CEO will be a good link between progress, issues, and areas where they need help with investors. A good portion of early stage startups that raise money will have a board comprised of at least 3 people: the CEO founder, the investor, and an independent board member.
5. Be a good Link between the Company and Product
I have this unwavering belief that the best companies are those that keep a founder as CEO for the long haul. Not because the founders have the right to be CEO, but because the CEO needs to be close to the product vision of the company. Founding CEOs understand this the best and can carry out that same unified vision over time. To fill in the management gaps a great COO, other board members, and heads of divisions will come along. It’s a strategy that Facebook has employed and why Apple has had a great resurgence when Steve Jobs re-joined the team. It’s all about keeping the CEO as close as possibly linked to the product. Unfortunately there are many examples where early successful startup companies lost their way with changes in CEO, usually wanting to bring in a “corporate” CEO without the passion for the long term vision.
6. Be able to Learn on the Job
Most startup CEOs didn’t start out with an MBA or some background in growing a company from nothing to something. The best have an ability to learn along the way and embrace their failures to become a better leader. Don’t worry about whether “you’re qualified” as it’s hard to put typical qualifications on the job. You’ll learn the really important lessons along the way. The best startup CEOs will surround themselves with smart mentors to be a sounding board along the way.
7. Have an Ability to Say No
You will be inundated with a list of requests from potential partners, investors, employees, and more. They will all sound absolutely wonderful. As you grow, you will also have the resources to execute more of them. Don’t. It’s easy to say yes, but so very hard to say no. By having an ability to say no, you can keep your company on track with the large vision you maintain. It will also keep your team members laser focused and feel more rewarded as they are able to focus on one thing at a time. I’ve seen too many startups sink because the CEO keeps changing what the head of product and engineering should be doing.
8. Be able to Break Things Down into Achievable Milestones
You will need to break down your vision into sizable chunks and milestones for the rest of the team to understand it. You also need to be able to pick when and where to overcome challenges strategically. What is the path of least resistance so you can gain traction? What can you do first with your given resources?
We have only touched on a few of the important traits to become a successful startup CEO. It is anything but a glamourous job. However, if you are good at being an entrepreneur the world is your oyster.
So you want to be a successful startup CEO?
If you are a startup CEO and find this blog has inspired you to consider using an experienced business mentor we would love to talk with you about your startup plans.
Good luck with your startup and the selection of people you surround yourself with.